“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” as presented by the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre is less a musical production than a staged spectacle.
After working together on an animated version of the Victor Hugo classic for Disney Studios, musical genius Alan Menken and Broadway icon Stephen Schwartz set out to adapt their collaborative efforts for the stage in the late 1990s.
When it proved difficult to translate a nearly 1,000-page gothic romance into a play that audiences could sit through comfortably, the inventive pair hit on the ploy of reducing much of the original novel’s narrative into musical vignettes woven into “The Bells of Notre Dame,” the play’s main and recurring theme. In effect, the members of the vocal chorus thus become the narrators of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
Giving ensemble players such a critical task might be problematic for some theater companies, but not here. The 20-plus members of the UFOMT chorus meet that challenge with soaring voices that often blend into a spellbinding homage to Gregorian chant.
The heart and soul of this production is Ezekiel Andrew’s compelling portrayal of the deformed Quasimoto. Andrew skillfully lifts his character out of mere stereotype by creating a tragic hero who is not tormented by his handicap, but rather by conflicting desires to explore the world on one hand and to hide from it on another.
Kevin Nakatani offers an equally layered performance as the lecherous archdeacon Frollo. After years of faithfully performing supporting roles, one might suspect that Nakatani would be tempted to chew up the scenery when he finally gets a part worthy of his talents. Instead, the local favorite delivers another of his trademark thoroughly professional and utterly convincing characterizations.
Jessica Gruver is sensational as the gypsy dancer Esmeralda, the sole focus of the frustrated affections of practically every man on stage. Who could blame them?
Despite its roots in a cartoon, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is largely faithful to Hugo’s grim original source material. Set designer Tim Case intensified that somber mood with his starkly effective stage design. Dramatic lighting and technical effects by Chris Wood also contribute to this spectacle.
Additional evening performances of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” are slated at the Eccles Theatre on Aug. 5 and 8.
Editor’s Note: Charlie Schill has directed and performed with theater groups in the United States and overseas. Schill also served as theater critic for the Temple Daily Telegram in Texas and the Pacific Stars & Stripes and Japan Times, both daily newspapers in Tokyo.